Paulding and Precedent

Hiram Paulding, Walker's captor

Hiram Paulding, Walker’s captor

The Nicaraguans offered their thanks to Commodore Paulding for landing on their territory and seizing William Walker’s filibustering expedition. They had asked for the Navy’s help in stopping Walker, after all. Buchanan’s message of January 7, 1858 made just that point even as it also carefully equivocated about how Paulding exceeded his instructions in landing on Nicaraguan soil. While the Commodore’s orders certainly told him to stop Walker, they authorized no landing on, or invasion of, foreign territory. Nor, however, did they forbid one.

Continuing his defense of Paulding, Senator James Doolittle (R-WI) quoted European legal authorities to back up an argument from basic pragmatism, compounded by the slow and unreliable communications of the age, that a commander in the field or a captain at sea might find himself forced by necessity to act on his own authority, exceeding the letter of his orders to obtain their objective:

there are exigencies which no human being can foresee, for which no specific instructions can be given in advance, which throw a military or naval commander an absolute necessity for instant action -where, to retreat from his position, would be dishonor; and to wait for instructions from a Department a thousand miles away would be a crime against all the laws of God and man. When charged with the execution, therefore, of a special undertaking, it is always implied in the instructions given, when they do not expressly forbid it, that he may do all in his power which the honor of his country, the laws of nature, and the laws of nations will allow, to effect the purpose of that special undertaking.

Naval officers routinely exercised that kind of authority in the 19th century, dispatching men to protect citizens of the mother country and their property in ports during times of unrest or rescuing them from the same. Arresting Walker did not quite count as the same sort of humanitarian aid, except for the Nicaraguans, but Doolittle had other precedents in mind:

It was this principle which authorized and justified Commodore Dale to commence hostilities against the Tripolitanians in 1801, when it was believed that war was intended by them. Neither Commodore Dale nor Captain Sterret, the officer who made the first capture, was censured; but, on the contrary, both were highly applauded, and the latter received the thanks of Congress and a sword, although at the time war had not been declared against Tripoli. It was the same principle which authorized and justified Commodore Rodgers in blockading the port of Tunis, and forcing the Bey to terms; and afterwards drawing his ships up before the batters of Tangier, and threatening hostilities to the Emperor of Morocco, in the year 1805. It also authorized and justified Commodore Decatur in threatening hostilities to the Bey of Tunis and the Bashaw of Tripoli, in the year 1815, and forcing them to restore large amounts of money taken from our citizens. Neither of these officers was censured for his conduct, which he believed to be in accordance with the wishes of the nation, although the United States had not declared war against those Powers. Sir, it was by virtue of this principle that Captain Ingraham, in the harbor of Smyrna, performed the gallant deed for which he received the thanks of Congress.

Senator James R. Doolittle (R-WI)

Senator James R. Doolittle (R-WI)

That begins by referring to the two Barbary Wars, which the United States fought rather than pay tribute to the Barbary pirates of North Africa who preyed upon American and other shipping. The situations do parallel Paulding’s somewhat. In both cases, the Navy operated beyond the reach of swift communication, with the commanders operating under their understanding of the national will in the absence of contrary orders.

Captain Ingraham presents a slightly different case. Duncan Ingraham intervened to protect a failed Hungarian revolutionary from the Austrian consul in Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey). The Austrians wanted him back, but the revolutionary, Martin Koszta, reached New York and swore out an oath that he intended to take up American citizenship. He found himself in Turkey about a year later on business and touched base with the local American consul, who agreed that he deserved American protection.

The Austrians took Koszta anyway and carted him off to one of their ships in the bay. On hearing that the Austrians planned to make off with Koszta entirely, Ingraham trained his guns on their ship and gave them a four hour ultimatum: give up Koszta or he would open fire. Ingraham had only the go-ahead of the American consul for all of this and risked a war not with rogue pirate states but with one of the great European empires. If Congress could thank him for that, as it had just a few years earlier, then how could it condemn Paulding?